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Hind Al-Husseini

Hind Al-Husseini was born in occupied Jerusalem on April 25, 1916 to two Jerusalemite Palestinian parents. Her father died when she was only two years old, and left her mum to bring up her and her brothers on her own.

Despite the difficult conditions Hind’s mother faced, she was determined that Hind should pursue her education. Hind finished Elementary school in 1922 and she then joined the English Secondary School to become a teacher and graduated in 1937. She quit teaching in 1945 and decided to take on social work, and became the coordinator of the Women Social Cooperative Society in Jerusalem.

The establishment of the Israeli Zionist entity in 1948 resulted in around 70 massacres against the Palestinians. On April 9, 1948 a massacre carried out by the Zionist terrorist gangs the Irgun and the Haganah in Deir Yassin; a village located at the outskirts of Jerusalem, resulted in the killing  of thousands of Palestinians and displacing of others. On a cold night in April 1948, Hind Al-Husseini aged 31, whilst walking in the old city of Jerusalem, found 55 young children near a wall between the Holy Sepulchre Church and Omar Mosque who have been orphaned and survived the massacre of Deir Yassin.

Hind took the children who were all under nine years of age, and put them in two rooms in a market called ‘Souk Al-Hossor’ in the old city of Jerusalem and said ‘I swore to God that I will live with them or die with them’. However, Hind had to remove the children from the rooms she rented because the situation was getting dangerous in the old city of Jerusalem. Shortly after removing the kids, the rooms were bombed.

Just after two weeks of the massacre of Deir Yassin, Hind decided to locate the 55 children in her family’s mansion in Jerusalem, which her grandfather built in 1891. She turned the house into an orphanage for the young survivors and named it Dar Al-Tifl Al-Arabi (Arab Children’s House).

Hind created a foundation to raise money to help the Palestinian orphans and expand the school to cater for the whole Palestinian community. Other orphans joined the school following the occupation of most cities of Palestine in 1967. Dar Al-Tifl became a girls’ school, only with the exception of nursery and boarding school, until the age of six.

Hind always called for the importance of women’s education so she founded the Hind Al-Husseini College for women in 1982. Hind received many awards for her work: the Jordan Globe Medallion for Social Work (1983), the Jordan Globe Medallion for Education (1985), and the First Degree Medallion from Germany (1989).

Hind Al-Husseini passed away in 1994 but her legacy still thrives after all those years. Nowadays Dar Al-Tifl Al-Arabi is one of the best Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem that contributes to building a Palestinian cultural identity and solid community.

Written for Sheroes of History by Nof Nasser Eddin, Director of The centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration

Find out more…

Learn more about the school Hind founded here.

In 2010 the film Miral was released, which tells Hind Al-Husseini’s story, there is also a book of the film available here.

Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email sheroesofhistory@gmail.com.

Phillis_Wheatley_frontispiece

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was a poet and the first African American woman to have her work published.

Phillis Wheatley, as her name became, was born in West Africa (probably Senegal). Her African birth name is unknown to us now, because when she was only 7 years old she was kidnapped and shipped to America to be sold as a slave. The ship she sailed on was called The Phillis, from which she got her new name. The family she was sold to were the Wheatleys.

The Wheatley’s daughter taught Phillis to read and write, which was quite unusual for a slave. She was a quick learner; by the time she was 9 years old she had mastered English, by the time she was 12 she could handle Greek and Latin too! The Wheatley family encouraged her learning and she began to read all the books she could lay her hands on.

Phillis wrote her first poem at the age of 13 and very quickly had it published in the local paper, The Newport Mercury. Her reputation as a poet soon began to spread after she wrote a poem about a well known Reverend who had died.

As she developed her talent, she wrote more and more poems. Many people however didn’t believe that the poems they were reading could really have been written by a black slave. In 1772 Phillis had to defend her work before it could be published.

Phillis had travelled to London with the Wheatley’s eldest son. She had been unable to raise the sponsors needed to publish a book in America, but was more successful in England, where she met with the Mayor of London and an important Countess called Selina Hastings.

Together they found a bookseller and printer to publish her collection of poems, but because she was a slave he said he needed proof that she was really the poet. And so eventually several well-to-do men from Boston, back in America agreed, and testified to the fact, that she had indeed written these brilliant poems. Her book of poems was called Poems on Various Subjects – Religious and Moral. It was published in London, in 1773.

Their ‘attestation’ appeared in the front of her first collection of published works which was released the following year. It read:

“WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.”

With Poems on Various Subjects she became the first African American to publish a book, male or female. Despite the fact that she was still a slave, the very fact that she wrote so beautifully and intelligently greatly challenged the ideas many people held about black people.

Although her poems didn’t always overtly challenge slavery, she none-the-less did include ideas which led to abolitionists embracing her work. This extract from one of her poems challenges those with religious beliefs about keeping slaves:

“But how presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind
While yet o deed ungenerous they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric: blameless race
Let virtue reign and then accord our prayers
Be victory ours and generous freedom theirs.”

She also wrote many letters, and in one she sent in 1774, when speaking about slavery she said,

“in every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

In 1775 Phillis wrote a poem about George Washington and sent it to him (as you do!) He obviously liked it because he invited her to his house to meet with her.

In 1778 her master, John Wheatley died and Phillis became a freed woman as he had written in his will. She soon met and married a free black man called John Peters.  Sadly, her freedom and new married life were to become perhaps the hardest years of her life.

Life was disrupted by the American Revolution, Phillis and her husband became very poor, and suffered the tragic loss of two children. Often when slaves were freed they found it hard to earn an income, as many people were still deeply racist and wouldn’t give them work. Phillis did find work eventually, as a scullery maid – very different to the life she had been used to as a writer.

Determined to use her skills as a poet Phillis tried to gain enough sponsors to publish a second collection of poems which she had been working on, however it wasn’t to be. Despite this she continued to write, and published more poetry in pamplets.

But things got worse for Phillis. Her husband John was put in prison because he couldn’t pay his debts, leaving Phillis and a very young, very sick, child to fend for themselves. In 1784 Phillis died in poverty at her home in Boston, her young son followed her just three and a half hours later.

Despite the tragic end to her story, Phillis Wheatley is remembered as an important figure in American Literary history. Some critics say that she should have been more vocal about slavery in her poetry, however the fact she wrote at all did a lot to change people’s minds about what a black person could do, and showed them that they were in fact no different. After her death Phillis, and her poems, were often used as an example by those striving to end slavery for good.

In Boston today there is a memorial statue of Phillis Wheatley. Engraved on the side are the words from a wonderful poem she wrote about imagination:

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

 

Find out more….

You can read all of Phillis Wheatley’s published poems, most of which can be found for free online. Have a look here, where you can download a free copy of her book.

You can also read more about her life in this book and this book!

Here is a short video clip about Phillis:

 

Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email sheroesofhistory@gmail.com.

 

 

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Penelope Queen of Ithaca

Penelope was the daughter of Icarius of Sparta and his wife Periboea. Although she is the cousin of Helen of Sparta/Troy her lineage is not what she is famous for, Penelope is famous for being the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus, together they were king and queen of Ithaca, they also had one son together – Telemachus.

In the ancient world, particularly Greece, women were ‘seen and not heard’. Men would marry women specifically for the purpose of having children, preferably a boy. Women could not attend assemblies or be a council member, they could not have an education, they did not have jobs or even the right to marry who they wanted, arranged marriage was what would be expected in the ancient Greek world. The women’s main jobs were to provide male heirs and to look after the household (the household being the slaves, cooks and farm hands).

The story of Penelope is mainly told in Homers – The Odyssey where straight away we get the epithet for Penelope as ‘loyal Penelope’ and ‘wise Penelope’. Being a queen, it is easy to assume Penelope lived an easy, comfortable life but this was not the case. Penelope’s husband Odysseus went away to the Trojan War for ten years. Penelope spent ten years worrying day in, day out about the fate of her husband, not knowing if he was dead or alive, the emotional torture she endured was excruciating. To worsen the struggles of poor Penelope it then took Odysseus ten years to get home from Troy, in which time Penelope heard nothing of his journey or if he was alive. By this time the son of Odysseus and Penelope, Telemachus, was around the age of 20; Penelope had brought Telemachus up on her own.

Penelope was still a queen, and always described as very beautiful so therefore could easily remarry. Whilst this is true, in fact Penelope had 108 suitors who would spend everyday in the palace, eating all their food and making use of all the facilities; much to the disgust of queen Penelope. But how could she remarry? After all was Odysseus even dead?

My personal opinion is that Penelope is a hero (shero) in her own right. She spent twenty years remaining loyal to Odysseus, despite 108 suitors bringing her gifts and begging for her attention, she never strays. Homer even mentions in the Odyssey that each night Penelope sleeps with thoughts of Odysseus in her mind. It was uncommon for women to be loyal, Penelope’s own cousin Clytemnestra, had an affair when her husband Agamemnon was away at the Trojan war and helped her lover murder Agamemnon on his return.

Considering Greek women were not educated, Penelope was cunning. She created a ‘shroud trick’ in which she told the suitors once she had created this shroud she would marry one of them. Every night before she slept, Penelope would slowly unpick every hand-sewn stitch she’d created throughout the day, therefore never finishing the shroud and never picking a new husband.

Penelope also came up with the idea of ‘stringing the great bow’ – A bow owned by Odysseus that only he could string (which of course Penelope knew) so one by one each suitor tried and failed to string the bow.

In conclusion, I think Penelope is a shero because she defies all the stereotypes of what an ancient woman should be. She is educated in her own right, a brilliant queen and mother and she remains always loyal to Odysseus.

Written for Sheroes of History by Breagh Mcnamara

Find out more…

The Odyssey is an epic poem, where the full story of Penelope is told. You can read it for free online here, or get yourself a copy of the book. (If you don’t want to read the whole thing, but want a summary you can look here.)

There is a much more detailed account of Penelope’s story here and a useful timeline of Penelope’s tale here.

Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email sheroesofhistory@gmail.com.

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Frances Power Cobbe

Frances Power Cobbe dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of women, children and animals. She spoke out about domestic violence and founded the first organisations to campaign against animal testing.

Frances Power Cobbe was born in Dublin in 1822. She came from a well known family with quite a religious background; her ancestor, Charles Cobbe, had been the Archbishop of Dublin in the 1700s, a very important position at the time.

Frances was the only girl in her family and had four older brothers. While they were allowed a proper education Frances remained at home for most of her childhood, reading everything she could lay her hands on and educating herself. She was sent to a school in Brighton for a couple of years when she was 14, but this was more of a finishing school for girls and she said it did her no good whatsoever. She was pleased when she returned home and could once again return to her books.

As her mother grew ill, as the only girl Frances took on the housekeeping duties in their home. During this time, and as she continued to read lots of interesting books and ideas, she started to question the strict Christian religion of her family. Her mother and father didn’t like this at all. A year after her mother died her father was so displeased with her for thinking this way that he sent her away to live on a remote farm with her brother (although she didn’t stay away for long as he realised he needed her to keep up with the housework!)

This didn’t stop Frances from developing her own thoughts about life and religion, and in 1855 she wrote an ‘Essay on the Theory of Intuitive Morals’ and began to describe herself first as an agnostic, and then later as a theist.

When her father died Frances spent some time travelling around Europe alone (unusual for a woman at the time.) She found a particular love for Italy – and indeed it turned out to be a significant place for her for more than one reason.

Firstly it was the place that she met the love of her life. Mary Lloyd was a sculptur and became Frances’ life long partner. In her writing Frances referred to her as both ‘husband’ and ‘wife’.
Italy was also the place where she first encountered animal testing (vivisection) and began to feel strongly against it.

The faith she had developed led her to believe that she should act for the good of others and try to bring about a positive change in the world. She said;

“It came to me to see that Love is greater than Knowledge; that it is more beautiful to serve our brothers freely and tenderly than to ‘hive up learning with each studious year’.”

In London she began to earn a living as a journalist, and she used her writing to draw attention to causes she found important. She produced numerous pamphlets about various issues. One was called ‘Wife Torture’ and highlighted the huge problem of domestic violence in marriages. She strongly argued that women should be allowed to legally separate and divorce from their husbands on the grounds of abuse and assault. Her arguments helped lead to the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1878, which allowed just that. She said,

“The part of my work for women . . . to which I look back with most satisfaction, was that in which I laboured to obtain protection for unhappy wives, beaten, mangled, mutilated or trampled on by brutal husbands.”

She also wrote about men and the power they had over their wives power, putting forward the idea that because men held all the money and property in a marriage, they could use this power to go on treating their wives very badly (as without economic independence women were often helpless to leave their husbands.) She joined the Married Women’s Property Committee and the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

In 1870 her attention turned towards helping animals. She drew a parallel between the way that women and animals were both badly treated. She wrote a moving piece called ‘Confessions of a Lost Dog’, in which a stray dog tells it’s story, eventually finding a loving home. It was very popular and really raised awareness of the plight of some animals.

Her main focus became campaigning against vivisection and for laws to protect animals. She wrote more pamplets and articles, she spoke at public meetings and gave lectures; she sent petitions to parliament and wrote letters to people explaining her (or rather the animals’) cause.

In 1875 she founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV) and in 1878 the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) which is still going today!

She tried to raise awareness of animal testing around the world. In an address to America she said;

“Men and Women of America! Suffer us who are laboring to stop vivisection in our own country, to plead with you for its suppression in your younger land, where as yet the new vice of scientific cruelty cannot be deeply rooted…whether the practice be useful or useless, we ask you to reflect whether it be morally lawful—(not to speak of humane, or generous, or manly)—to seek to relieve our own pains at the cost of such unutterable anguish as has been already inflicted on unoffending creatures in the name of Science? You now know, to a certain extent, what it is that the advocates of vivisection really mean when they ask you to endow “Research.” Will you—bearing their experiments in mind—pay them to repeat such cruelties?”

In her pamplets she often used very graphic and upsetting descriptions of the experimentation being done to animals, including sometimes illustrations. When people were squeamish about these she declared,

“Do not refuse to look at these pictures. If you cannot bear to look at them, what must the
suffering be to the animals who undergo the cruelties that they represent?”

Her many endeavors, and the way she brought together the animal rights movement led to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which regulated and restricted experimentation on animals.

In 1884 Frances retired with Mary in Wales. They lived their together until Mary died. When Frances died 8 years later in 1904 she was buried next to Mary in a small churchyard near where they had lived.

Throughout her life Frances Power Cobbe was known for being very forthright, she always boldly spoke her mind in an effort to bring justice to those she saw as being wronged. While some saw her as being difficult, her compassion shone through. Author Louisa May Alcott said that when Frances was around “it was as if a great sunbeam had entered the room”.

She lived her life with courage and conviction, following her heart even when that meant becoming an outsider – whether that was with regard to her religion, politics or sexuality.

 

Find out more…

Frances wrote a book about her life called ‘The Life and Times of Frances Power Cobbe As Told by Herself’ which you can still buy today. It’s available here.

Many of Frances’ other writings can be viewed online. You can see a list of them, with links here.

Find out more about the BUAV and the work they do to protect animals here.

 

Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email sheroesofhistory@gmail.com.

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Mairi Mhor Nan Oran

Skye Gaelic bard and Highland Land League shero, Mairi Mhor Nan Oran.

Mairi Mhor Nan Oran was many things; a nurse and midwife, a one-time prisoner and most notably a gaelic poet and songstress. It was through this work that she earned her shero status and, due to her body type, the name Mairi Mhor Nan Oran, meaning Big Mary of the Songs.

Mairi Mhor was born in Skeabost, on the Isle of Skye in 1821. She was born Mary MacDonald, into a crofting family. Her early life was characterized by the rural and domestic arts typical of her gender and social class, crofting work and home textile production. In her 27th year she moved to Inverness and married a shoemaker by the name of Isaac MacPherson. Around the age of 50 in 1872, Mairi Mhor, whilst engaged in domestic work, was imprisoned for stealing clothes from her mistress. The charge was widely considered to have been unjust.

After her imprisonment, and the death of Isaac, Mairi moved to Glasgow and gained a certificate in nursing and a diploma in obstetrics. However, her time and treatment whilst in prison had made a lasting impression on Mairi and revealed a talent for poetry and songwriting that had previously lain dormant.

Mairi Mhor’s poetry was contemporary with the Highland-wide struggle over crofters’ land rights and the agitation was a subject with a strong presence in her work. Mairi Mhor’s talent for Gaelic poetry and ability for story telling made her socially and politically significant in Glasgow. She became a focal point amongst the ‘exiled’ highlanders in Glasgow and Greenock, and was present at number of gatherings there. Mairi often took to the platforms drawing sizable crowds for political speakers. In her songs Mairi represented the beauty of the Skye and the strength of its peoples’ character.

Mairi Mhor returned to Skye permanently in 1882. There Mairi Mhor’s work became a galvanizing force in the crofters’ struggle for rights. Mairi vigorously opposed the treatment and disenfranchisement of Skye crofters and wrote songs directed at those she held responsible and the indifference of those unwilling to act. This included a criticism of the Skye clergy;

‘The preachers have so little care

Seeing the ill treatment of my Isle’s folk

And so silent about it in the Pulpit

As if brute beasts were listening to them.’

In addition to criticisms of individuals and privileged groups, Mairi Mhor wrote songs that celebrated the crofters and key events in their fight for land rights. These events included the ‘Battle of the Braes’ in the year of her return to Skye. This was an incident wherein men, women and children, armed mostly with stones fought with a force of police and soldiers sent from Glasgow to evict them.

In the nineteenth century women amounted to a small minority of Gaelic poets. Yet, Mairi Mhor managed to span the social classes with her poetry and songs. Whilst she was a significant influence on the working classes and crofters she also held the acclaim of academics and scholars with whom she also formed strong friendly relationships.

Mairi Mhor’s hero status has not waned with the passing of time. In 2007 she was amongst the names of a number of women commemorated for their political impact at Holyrood. Community groups in recent years have collected stories that still survive in family traditions, these stories include how Skye communities grew excited by her frequent visits, and how when in Glasgow she would deal with hecklers with a robust sense of humour. Finally in 2013 the Island Book Trust published a historical novel of Mairi Mhor’s life , Love and Music Will Endure, demonstrating that there is no sign of a demise of her hero status in the near future.

Written for Sheroes of History by Michael James.

Find out more…

http://www.ambaile.org.uk/en/

To read a longer piece about Mairi Mhor on the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement’s site, click here.

For more information on The Battle of the Braes, see this BBC video.

The BBC also have a cool comic strip about Mairi Mhor’s life on their BBC Bitesize history page. You can look through it here.

Some of her songs have been recorded and you can listen to them today online, or on CDs which you can buy.

Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email sheroesofhistory@gmail.com.

For King and Country – Edward Skinner.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 6513)

Remembering the Munitionettes of the First World War

On Rememberance Day this week thousands stopped for 2 minutes to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month; commemorating the end of the First World War and remembering the millions who lost their lives in that, and other conflicts since.

During that two minutes silence this year my mind was drawn to remember the women who bravely played their part in the Great War, and those who sadly lost their lives in the process.

This week’s post is a little different, instead of focusing on one named Shero I want to write a about the sheroes who worked in the munitions factories during the First World War, whose names have been forgotten; the Munitionettes. I have recently been able to look into the role these women fulfilled and find out more about what their lives were like.

In 1914 approximately 24% of working age women were already employed, they worked mainly in domestic jobs, as shop assistants, or doing simple work in small factory industries. By the end of the war the number of women who had taken up jobs had grown to approximately 1,600,000 – with over a million of those working in the munitions factories. The employment which women found open to them throughout the war not only increased, but diversified, with women doing less of the traditionally female roles they had before the war and taking their place in more male dominated areas.

The recruitment of women into the munitions factories and other previously male-held positions grew gradually. The shell crisis of 1915 made clear the drastic need for more munitions and work was stepped up at home. An act was passed which allowed factories to employ more women and so the doors began to open for women to enter the munitions workforce en masse.

In 1916 the Government introduced conscription which saw another 2.7 million men leave Britain, on top of the 2.6 million who had volunteered. This left an ever increasing demand for a workforce, which ultimately women filled.

In my research at Coventry’s local History Centre I was able to look through editions of the Coventry Graphic newspaper from 1915-17. The paper focuses heavily on the men: those who were leaving, those returning – often injured, and sadly a weekly rolecall of those who would never return. It’s only towards the end of 1915 that mentions of women taking up absent men’s jobs start to appear:

Clipping from 1915 Coventry Graphic showing women tram conductors.

Clipping from The Coventry Graphic showing women tram conductors.

Clipping from 1915 Coventry Graphic showing postwomen.

Clipping from 1915 Coventry Graphic showing postwomen.

By mid 1916 women were being actively recruited into the munitions factories, by ways such as this gorgeous poster:

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Women who went to work in the factories could expect to be working 12 hour days for a 6 day week. They often worked on bonus systems to encourage faster working and productivity. Many factories built temporary accomodation to house the influx of workers and nurseries were set up so that mothers could also join the workforce.

When starting out the women often found a mixed response from their male colleagues. There are stories of deliberate sabotage by men who weren’t keen to share their space with women, but on the whole it seems the men appreciated the need for extra workers.

The Imperial War Museum has a fantastic set of oral histories from those who worked in the munitions factories which give colour & detail to what factory life was like. (The quotes I have used in this piece are gathered from these oral histories.) Harry Smith remembers how the men in his factory reacted to the new female workers:

“Well they weren’t as skilled as the men that’d been brought up with the job, but they did just the job that they were told to do. And there [was] more repetition work then than previously in the years before the war. Well, some didn’t – the older men didn’t like it, but some enjoyed it because they, some went to have a drink at night with them, but not me.”

Women at the Hillman factory in Coventry. From the Coventry Graphic 1915.

Women at the Hillman factory in Coventry. From the Coventry Graphic 1915.

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Coventry women at the Hillman factory Coventry, with William Hillman in the centre. From the Coventry Graphic 1915.

To allow for as many women to enter the workforce as swiftly as possible many skilled jobs were broken down into smaller, more simple tasks that the women could learn quickly. This was known as the ‘dilution of labour’. There was some opposition to this, particularly from unions who feared that this diluting, in addition to the lower levels of pay women earned, would lead to fewer jobs for their male members when they returned from the front. There were of course also those who just didn’t like the idea of women leaving the home at all. The Factory Times magazine in 1916 wrote,

“We must get women back into the home as soon as possible. That they ever left is one of the evil results of the war!”

Muntionettes were paid less than half that of male workers, however striking was made illegal and so many found little recourse to address this unequal pay.

Two women in particular who deserve a mention for their efforts to assist female workers and address the pay issue were Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield (featured on Sheroes a few weeks ago) who were the founders of the National Federation of Women Workers.

The War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry agreed with equal pay in principle they said, but believed that due to their “lesser strength and special health problems” (?!) the output of women would not possibly be as great as that of the male workers!

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 108474)

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 108474)

Working in the munitions factories came with significant hazards. A now fairly well known phenomenon was the TNT poisoning which turned many women’s skin yellow.

Caroline Rennles worked at the Slade Green Factory in Kent, she remembered the effect of the TNT well:

“Well of course we all had bright yellow faces, you see, ’cos we had no gas masks in those times and all our hair here… The manager used to say, ‘Tuck that hair under!’ you know, and you used to almost look like nuns… So it was all bright ginger, all our front hair, you know. And all our faces were bright yellow – they used to call us canaries.”

The Canary Girls, as they became known, didn’t just suffer with a change in skin colour though; TNT poisoning also meant coughs, chest infections, digestive problems and ultimately could lead to death. It is estimated that around 400 women lost their lives due to TNT poisoning during the war.

However that wasn’t the only risk the munitionettes faced. Many were also exposed to asbestos, some were injured in accidents with the machinery and in addition there was the ever present danger of explosion. Strict rules about dress made sure that no hair clips, brooches, combs or cigarettes – nothing that could cause a spark – were allowed into the factories. Another worker, Kathleen Gilbert remembers,

“You all had to change when you went in. You had to strip and change into other clothes because you weren’t allowed a little tiny bit of metal on you at all, not one hook or eye or anything. And of course they had corsets in those days with wires in them, you see. And you had to finish up with an overall and put your head covering on.”

Workers had to wear dog tags which would be used to identify casualties in the event of an explosion. Sadly there were several big explosions in munitions factories where many workers lost their lives. The biggest of these was at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell in 1918, where 134 died and another 250 were injured.

Despite the dangers women rose to the challenge, learnt new skills and formed a vital part of the overall war effort. By the end of the war it was estimated that around 80% of the weapons being used at the front were made by munitionettes. It’s clear the impact that their service had, as Hal Kerrige a soldier recalled:

“Well, at one stage for every shell that we fired, they fired a dozen. Oh we were overwhelmed, there’s no doubt about that…So they removed all the restrictions about women labour, said, ‘You can employ women wherever you like on whatever you like, whatever they’re capable of doing – put ’em in the shell factories.’ And that’s when we started to get shells and shells and more and more and more shells. And they were a saviour, they really were. Because if they hadn’t removed those restrictions about the employment of women labour, we’d have been in trouble.”

At the end of the war the vast majority women were forced out of the factories, particularly married women who many thought should not be in any type of work. There was a great emphasis on jobs being available for the men returning from the front, to the extent that even some jobs which were traditionally female-held positions were now turned over to men who had returned with injuries.

The Government gave a somewhat token gesture of thanks with the Representation of the People Act of 1918, granting some, but by no means all, women the vote.

Despite this it is easy to see how the attitudes and expectations of people slightly shifted as a result of the amazing work the women did during the war, including perhaps their own ideas about what they were capable of.

The munitionettes played a crucial part in Britain’s efforts during the First World War. When we remember the servicemen who laid down their lives, let’s not forget the sheroes whose names have been forgotten, who remained at home and gave their all, including sometimes their lives.

 

Find out more…

There are so many fantastic resources where you can find out about the munitionettes!

First have a look at this amazing video which shows many different aspects of workers’ lives.

The quotes in this piece are from a podcast which you can listen to on The Imperial War Museum’s website.

The Striking Women website has some great information about female workers and their rights during the First World War.

On the National Archive site you can look at real documents relating to the women close up.

And there are loads more amazing photos of women in the factories which you can look at in the Imperial War Museum’s collections search (try searching ‘munitions First World War’.)

Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email sheroesofhistory@gmail.com.

Sheroes of History at Birmingham Library!

Hi everyone, just a quick post to announce a really exciting event that Sheroes of History will be leading at Birmingham Libarary on 29th November.

This is Sheroes of History’s first ever event, so I’m really excited. It’s part of the 16 Days of Activism, and we’ll be looking at some great activist Sheroes of history! The event is free, but you do need to book a place.

Follow this link to find out more and book a ticket!

If you have any great activist sheroes you think we should feature at the event please get in touch!